The author of 25 books for various ages that have sold more than 2 million copies, Alex London’s next success will be his middle-grade series, Battle Dragons. (Battle Dragons #1: City of Thieves will be available for purchase on September 21, 2021.) While he has experience reporting from conflict zones, he now spends his time with his family in Philadelphia. Wanting to talk to him about his career as well as Battle Dragons, I was able to interview him for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some stories you loved? Are there any you can still enjoy revisiting?
Alex London: I struggled as a reader when I was young, and didn’t become an avid one until middle and high school, but I was always drawn to making up stories and was fortunate to grow up in a house with a lot of books and a robust comics collection. I would often sit and stare at the cover art for my books, which I didn’t read, but I would make up my own tales inspired by the covers.
Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin sparked many tales in my imagination before I ever read it, the same with Asimov and Tolkien. In fact, I’ve still never read The Hobbit, though I’ve owned a copy since, like, 1989! I was very visual, so the images from covers and comics, the images from some of the anime that made it into my awareness, like Akira, they’ve stuck with me and influenced me. Now that I am a reader, however, I don’t revisit much…life is too short and there are too many great writers working now to go back to my wayward, daydreaming youth’s skipped assignments!
Yanes: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career as a writer? Was there a moment in which this goal crystalized for you?
London: Yes, oddly as someone who didn’t read much, it was in 6th grade, after Brian Jacques, author of Redwall, answered the one fan letter I ever wrote an author and encouraged me to keep using my own imagination and that I could one day grow up to be a writer. His encouragement opened the doors to what was possible for me. I don’t think I would’ve conceived of the idea had he had not made it feel totally reasonable.
Yanes: You don’t have an MFA. How do you think your BA in philosophy and your MA in Library Science have helped you become a better writer?
London: Well, philosophy was the perfect undergrad degree for me, because it was a subject I didn’t much care about. By then I was an avid fiction and narrative nonfiction reader, and I didn’t want to major in English and find myself hating books or sick of them at some point. So, I did philosophy and kept my pleasure reading life far from the clutches of Academia. Also, I had a crush on a philosophy major, which might’ve informed my decision more than any retroactive rationalization I offer here. And being a youth services librarian and pursuing that degree exposed me to the vast and varied wonders of literature for young people, which has become my life’s work! I’d say it had big impact!
Yanes: From Edgar Allen Poe to Hannibal Lecter, Baltimore has a unique place in pop culture. How did being raised in Baltimore influence your approach to storytelling?
London: Well, I left pretty quickly as a teen, but I suppose it lent a certain absurdity to my worldview, my views of power, and my opinions on seafood. Knowing who John Waters was an admiring him before I knew the names of most baseball players probably says more about me that in does about Baltimore.
Yanes: If you could no longer use the name of London, which famous city would you use as a last name?
London: The Hague, because it’d be fun to have a definite article in my name.
Yanes: Your latest book is Battle Dragons: City of Thieves. In the process of developing this idea into a book, when did you know this would work as a novel? Was there a moment in which everything clicked into place?
London: Well, when I sold it! I developed an outline with the editor, so I knew going in that it was a novel. The thing is, it’s a series, and I didn’t have a detailed plan for that when I began. I’m writing book three now and drawing on things that happened in book one that I hadn’t planned on using again.
There’s a serendipity to writing fiction, and I enjoy the process of exploring for the little clicks along the way, rather than one big ‘click’ when the whole thing becomes clear. It rarely does until at least a second or third draft!
Yanes: There are a wide variety of dragons from various myths. Is there a type of dragon you wanted to include but couldn’t fit in?
London: I still haven’t used a hydra or any sort of multi-headed dragon, and I’d love to do that!
Yanes: One of the many things that works about Battle Dragons is that Drakopolis feels like a real city. What steps did you take to make sure this setting worked? Were there elements you didn’t include because it might seem too outlandish?
London: I’m so glad that worked for you! I love the setting and really treat it like a character. I spend a lot of time thinking about cities and what makes the work, the details you notice when you walk around, the characters you meet on the street.
I was lucky to have spent time as journalist and researcher in all kinds of cities all over the world, from Yangon to Venice, and I lived in NYC for nearly 20 years, and now in Philly…so I spend a lot of time walking and noticing cities. The vibrancy, contradiction, and even the infrastructure is all based on those long walks.
I added dragons and played out how their material reality would impact urban design and urban life, but I always tried to keep the city of Drakopolis grounded and human, even among the dragons.
Yanes: Abel, the main character, clearly benefited from a lot of time and thought in his creation. Is he based on anyone you know or other famous characters?
London: Oh, I guess mostly middle school me? He’s anxious and striving, a dreamer, but also a little timid. He lives in the shadow of siblings he fears he doesn’t quite measure up to. I think we all probably feel that way sometimes. I know I did! He is, in a sense, wish fulfillment for me! I’d have loved to ride a dragon in middle school! It’s so easy to feel powerless when you are young, and what are dragons if not power?
What I like about that is that power doesn’t change a person, so much as reveal them, and giving Abel power on the back of a dragon, allows me to explore who he really is when he’s free of limits placed on him by his circumstances. Will he be kind or cruel, brave or craven? It’s fun to see what a dragon does to a person, far beyond burning them alive and eating them!
Yanes: When people finish reading Battle Dragons, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
London: I hope they had fun. I hope their imaginations carry the world with them into daydreams. I hope they read the next book!
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that fans can look forward to?
London: Battle Dragons is a series, so I’m hard at work on book 3! Book 2 comes out in the spring. I can’t give away too much, but I’ll say a few things that are in Abel’s future: Dragon Races. Dragon Rodeos. And of course, a lot more dragon riding gangsters who do not have his best interests at heart.